Will Self: the first step in dealing with your speeding problem is agreeing that you have one

It may surprise regular readers of this column, who have read me over the years animadverting on the follies of all aspects of the vehicular, to learn that I am a chronic speedhead

At the speed awareness course run by AA DriveTech somewhere in the arse-end of the Angel, I run into Stephen Bayley, the design guru. Bayley is the author of (among many other works) Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, a copy of which he rather opportunistically has in the Gladstone bag he’s lugging along at the end of his cream-linen clad arm. A quick exchange establishes that he, like me, was nabbed by the speed cameras on Tower Bridge doing 27 miles per hour. Our admission calls forth from our fellow course participants, who are sitting on plastic stacking chairs waiting to undergo the “registration process”, that they – old, young, black, white, brown, male, female, gay and straight – are all guilty of exactly the same offence.

It’s a very modern moment, this: an application of technology to the turbid urban mill race has resulted in the diversion into this quiet, carpet-tiled pool of an odd group of fish, united only by this fact – that on such and such a date, we were all travelling at the same velocity in the same place. And yet . . . and yet, the recognition of this piffling common characteristic is sufficient, or so I like to think, to unite us as a group. As Gary (not his real name) from DriveTech checks our IDs and fingers our details into his handheld device, our solidarity grows; we swell into this new identity, until – seated in trios at melamine-topped desks, confronting our instructor – we have become the “Tower Bridge 22”, a fearless gang of desperados whose only wish was that the drawbridges had actually been raised as we speeded towards them, so that our cars would have been launched howling into inner space!

Our instructor, Peter (not his real name, either – indeed, I don’t believe he has one), sets out a few house rules, including the need for us to maintain confidentiality. So I suppose I shouldn’t be writing about this course, let alone telling you that Stephen was there. Still, I like to tempt fate: I’m the Edward Snowden of the TB22, fearlessly exposing DriveTech’s sinister secrets, and when the City of London police come knocking, I’ll go on the run, holing up at South Mimms services until I’m offered asylum . . . by Burger King.

Up until now, I’ve been struggling to fit in with the rest of the TB22. I want to be a good group member. Besides, unlike Stephen – who vigorously contends that he never speeds and that the 20-miles-per-hour limit, as well as being inadequately advertised on the approach to the bridge, is imposed on baseless grounds cooked up by English Heritage regarding its not-so-superstructure – I know I need help. It may surprise regular readers of this column, who have read me over the years animadverting on the follies of all aspects of the vehicular, to learn that I am a chronic speedhead. True, I don’t own a car any more but put my hands on the hireling wheel – as they were on the night of the 17th inst – and my foot slams straight to the floor. So . . . I am reaching out – while Stephen tenses up.

Over the next three hours, with only a 15-minute break for coffee, Peter leads us through the dos and do-nots of velocity. The course is a mixture of the informational (basically, a refresher on the Highway Code) and the emotional: lots of statistics about fatalities and how an extra ten miles an hour will turn you into the Angel of Death, slaughtering all suburban firstborn. I am, as I say, willing to be healed and so I participate enthusiastically. So does Stephen. Unfortunately, we take part perhaps a little too enthusiastically: I’m not sure Peter gets that many attendees who wish to discuss in detail the traffic management theories of Hans Monderman, or the impacts of high- and low-frequency vibrations on bascule bridges, let alone the neoliberal underpinning to his argument that the government needs us to be able to drive so that we can join in that collective desideratum, “growth”.

By the end of the course, when we’re using our hand-held devices to “vote” not only on multiple-choice questions but also on how we feel Peter has done, I’m feeling considerable solidarity with my fellow speeders. But then, as we are encouraged to put what we’ve learned to the test by answering questions in response to Peter’s laser pointer hovering over an image of the approaches to the dreaded bridge, it becomes painfully clear that I am a man alone. It is Stephen who personifies the group’s Geist, for almost every member of the TB22 is still carping bitterly about how they were nicked at all. Loonies.

A vandalised Gatso speed camera. Photo: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage